Body armor is one of the most popular products on the civilian firearms market right now. Everywhere you turn, ads online and booths at gun shows abound with it. The variety and options available are staggering, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed and/or misinformed and even tough to figure out if it’s a viable option for you.
It can be cumbersome, heavy, and will you even have enough time to put it on if something were to happen requiring it?
Here we take a look at body armor history, the level rating system, the differences between the various kinds available to you today, and finally, the application of body armor in the world of civilian self defense.
A Little Body Armor History
Most people think of chainmail shirts under plate armor suits worn by medieval knights when they think of historic armor, but it actually dates back much further than that.
Some of the earliest body armor was made of leather in China around 1766 BC. One of the earliest known pieces of body armor to survive intact is made entirely of leather and dates between 800 and 300 BC.
The overlapping leather scales are sewn to a softer leather backing with rawhide, and would have been the best defense available in antiquity providing defense against slashes and glancing blows with weapons like pikes and spears as well as deflecting indirect arrow hits. Leather armor was often coupled with heavier armor for the head, arms, and lower legs.
Metallic armor is generally believed to have been introduced about 2,000 years ago, or when time transitioned from BC to AD. It is this earliest iteration of primitive metal armor from which our current forms of body armor have evolved.
For many centuries after, chain mail and suits of armor ruled the day, eventually evolving into the full suit of plate armor with interlinking and overlapping plates that protected practically the entire body, including a full helm on the head, while allowing for a surprising amount of movement. The myth that fully armored knights of the Middle Ages could barely move due to the extreme weight has been debunked and a full suit of armor would have weighed less than a modern rifleman’s combat load, and would be more evenly dispersed.
However, once muskets and other early firearms hit the battlefield, armor became less and less effective the better the guns got, until it became just extra weight that offered no real protection against rifled firearms.
It would then take a long time for armor to catch up to the arms.
By the Civil War in the 1860s, bulletproof vests were being sold to soldiers in camp and by mail order at a cost of $5-$8, or ⅓ to ½ of a private’s monthly pay. Made of metal plates sewn between the layers of a normal vest, many claimed to be effective at stopping rifle rounds at 40 rods (220 yards) and pistol rounds at 10 paces (25 feet). Considering how much velocity rifle rounds at the time would lose after traveling 220 yards, this is technically possible.
Around the turn of the 20th century, Polish engineer Casimir Zeglen is credited with inventing the first commercially successful bulletproof vest, which utilized woven silk to defeat pistol ammo sort of the way modern Kevlar fibers work.
Ironically, it is said that President William McKinley’s private secretary had turned down Zeglen’s offer to provide the president with a vest just weeks before he was assassinated by Leon Czolgosz on September 6, 1901, who shot the president with a .32 caliber Iver Johnson revolver.
Body armor and bulletproof vests made little headway through the first half of the 20th century. They were still cumbersome and heavy, and they certainly had their limits, as none were wholly effective against new more powerful, large caliber handguns or rifles.
Still, something was better than nothing. Police and gangsters of the Prohibition era wore the tried-and-true soft armor vests that were so common in the 1920s and 1930s.
Later, World War II pilots wore flak jackets, which provided some protection from airborne shrapnel, but did little if anything to protect against gunfire.
It wasn’t until the 1960s and the advent of Nomex and Kevlar and other synthetic materials that body armor as we know it today began to take shape. These materials opened up the door to new levels of protection and comfort.
Even though those materials were available when the United States began sending troops to Vietnam, protective gear made from it had not been adopted by the military.
Images from that conflict often show soldiers wearing protective vests, and it would be easy to assume that they’re made of Nomex or Kevlar. Instead, they were actually WWII-vintage flak jackets and offered very little protection against 7.62 rounds fired from enemy SKS and AK-47 rifles. Some soldiers elected not to wear the hot vests in the steamy jungle climate of Vietnam.
Beginning with the Gulf War, U.S. troops began getting better armor, including Kevlar helmets to replace the old steel pots that had basically been unchanged since WWII, and better body armor, which has steadily advanced through the War in Iraq and the War on Terror.
Today, the soldiers in the United States Armed Forces are wearing the latest Modular Scalable Vest (MSV) system. Its name comes from the fact that this new vest, which weighs five pounds less than its predecessor, has a four-tier configuration that can scale up or down depending on the threat.
Tier One of the MSV is the inside soft body armor that the user can use as concealable armor. Tier Two adds soft-plated armor.
Tier Three includes the carrier vest and both soft armor and hard armor rifle plates as well as side panels, and Tier Four adds a ballistic combat shirt with built-in neck, shoulder, and pelvic protection. It also includes a belt system for carrying more gear.
Types of Modern Body Armor
In general, there are two types of body armor: hard and soft.
Soft armor is what you think of when picturing a traditional bulletproof vest often seen being worn by the police and other law enforcement officers.
This type of armor works like a net. It protects the wearer by catching the bullet in the layers of woven fabric and distributing the energy from the bullet out over a larger surface area and (hopefully) preventing it from penetrating.
This type of armor is the more comfortable of the two to wear, but it does have its drawbacks. Namely, it doesn’t provide as much protection as hard armor and won’t do much against high caliber handguns and rifle rounds. Granted, something is better than nothing, right? These types of vests have saved many lives since they have become standard equipment for police departments and law enforcement agencies small and large.
Hard armor is made up of thicker plates, either steel or ceramic, and is what you most often think of when picturing soldiers in a combat zone. The plates are worn in a minimalistic vest called a plate carrier, which come in various configurations and styles.
Armor plates provide much better protection than soft armor, but they are heavier, rigid, and, generally, cover less surface area than soft armor, usually protecting forward facing vital areas only to save as much weight as possible.
Hard armor works by means of destruction. That is, the plates act as a barrier to intercept and destroy the bullet. They absorb the energy by deforming the steel or breaking the ceramic.
When it comes to armor, weight is crucial. If there were ever a situation where the “ounces equal pounds” mentality were most applicable, it would be here.
The U.S. military’s MSV weighs 11 pounds empty, with a weight of 25 pounds with the armor plates in it. That may sound like a lot, but it’s a full five pounds lighter than the previous type of armored vest they were using. By comparison, a typical vest worn by law enforcement that has Level IIIA armor in it weighs “just” six pounds or so.
Extra protection means extra weight. For example, a 10”x12” Level II piece of soft armor weighs 1.1 pounds, while the same size Level IIIA hard plate weighs 4.8 pounds, and a Level IV hard plate weighs 8.3 pounds.
Ceramic or Steel?
So, what’s the difference? Steel plates are heavier than ceramic, but they tend to cost less, and are generally more durable. However, they have risks that you won’t find with ceramic plates.
One of the characteristics of steel is that it comes apart in small fragments, called spall, when hit.
Fragments from the spall are sharp and moving quickly, and they can be just as deadly in certain situations. As a workaround, steel plates are often offered with an anti-spalling coating to diminish the risk, but there’s no way to eliminate it completely. That extra coating also adds thickness to the plate’s dimension as well as some extra weight.
Ceramic plates offer a significant amount of weight reduction, sometimes coming in at a pound or more lighter per plate. We’ve already gone over how much of a difference that can make if you’re wearing it for a long period of time or with a lot of other gear.
Unfortunately, that weight savings comes with a price – literally. Ceramic plates will cost you more than their steel counterparts, and that’s definitely something to consider if you’re on a budget. They’re also more fragile than steel and are more susceptible to damage – and not just from bullet impact.
Accidentally dropping a plate on the ground can break it, rendering it incapable of providing future protection. Don’t mistake that for meaning that ceramic plates aren’t effective. They most certainly save lives and plenty of people depend on them every day.
Levels of Protection
Speaking of protection, the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) has been testing and rating body armor since the 1970s. Looking back 30 years, they have reports of body armor, both soft and hard, having saved the lives of more than 3,000 people. That’s one life every 3.5 days for 30 years!
The NIJ has developed a system for rating the armor that they test. These ratings are what you’ll see being advertised on the various options for sale. Here are the levels they use and what kind of protection each one provides:
Tested to stop 9mm and .40 S&W ammunition fired from short barrel handguns. No rifle ammunition protection.
Tested to stop 9mm and .357 Magnum ammunition fired from short barrel handguns. No rifle ammunition protection.
Tested to stop .357 SIG and .44 Magnum ammunition fired from longer barrel handguns. No rifle ammunition protection.
Tested to stop 7.62mm FMJ lead core rifle ammunition.
Tested to stop .30 caliber steel core armor piercing rifle ammunition.
One level you don’t see listed here is called Level III+. That’s because it is not an official NIJ level, but it is one that has been thoroughly tested.
The body armor industry made improvements over the traditional Level III armor, namely by making plates that stop almost any type of common ammo, including faster “hot” .308 loads and M193/M855 “green tip” .223 AR-15 ammo.
They named this new plate Level III+ because, obviously, it falls between levels III and IV.
Since 5.56mm/ .223 ammunition is so diverse in its makeup, the ability to stop it with different levels of armor varies accordingly. Rounds with lead cores typically used for hunting and target shooting can be stopped with Level III hard armor plates.
Most 5.56mm/.223 Jacketed Hollow Point (JHP) ammunition has a lead core. Level III armor or greater is the best choice here.
Finally, 5.56mm/.223 Green Tip Full Metal Jacket (FMJ) ammunition has a part steel core. Level IV armor is what you want in this situation.
There’s one last level not listed and one you definitely want to watch out for. It’s called Level V.
No such level exists, but you will see it from time to time being sold by less-than-reputable dealers online or at gun shows.
For extra protection, armor companies offer products called trauma pads. It’s important to note that they are not designed to stop a bullet. Instead, they’re designed to be worn in conjunction with body armor as an extra layer of energy absorption.
Of course, these pads are not essential, but if you’ve got the money to spend, then the less energy absorbed by the body, the better!
Personal Defense Use
Some people don’t think body armor, hard or soft, has a place in the personal defense space, arguing instead that that level of protection only belongs in the professional realm. Or, if they do think it has a place, it’s on a greatly reduced level. They argue that the daily threat level of the average person is low and therefore does not necessitate the inconvenience of wearing soft armor, let alone hard armor.
If they concede and admit that any kind of armor belongs in the self defense space, it would most certainly be soft armor and would likely be one of the insert panels that you can get for a backpack or briefcase. They’re relatively lightweight and they are about as unobtrusive in daily life as you can get while still having some kind of protection. Is the protection great? No, but again, something is better than nothing.
Other people swear by body armor for personal defense situations, and many of them know firsthand how beneficial it can be.
Larry Vickers, a retired US Army 1st SFOD- Delta combat veteran with years of experience in the firearms industry as a combat marksmanship instructor and industry consultant, thinks that body armor definitely has a role in civilian self defense.
“If someone has time in a home defense scenario to put on body armor – even a chest rig – then why not?” he says. “Having that option available is a plus.”
Fred Mastison, a professional instructor in the fields of defensive tactics, firearms, and executive protection, has a different view of its practicality.
Mastison is of the opinion that it has a “borderline application” in most civilian situations and that “there is not a clearly obvious application” in a “pure-civilian, non-job” setting.
However, that doesn’t mean Fred is against civilian body armor use.
“I believe it [body armor] should still be available, especially as we have seen advances in reduced weight panels being used in backpacks and other day to day items, says Mastison. “The truth is that we live in a dangerous world and having access to body armor in a worst case scenario should be an option for civilians.”
One of the ways to help figure out which option is best for you is by examining others who utilize body armor every day. For example, why do police wear one type and soldiers wear another? In the most basic of terms, it’s all about the most likely threat. Police are more likely to encounter handgun and shotgun threats, while soldiers are more likely to encounter rifle threats. Accordingly, they wear what works best based on their threat level – soft armor for cops and hard armor for military.
There’s a lot more that can be said about body armor than what’s in this article. If I tried to cover all of the specifics, you’d tire of reading before I had finished writing. Instead, this was designed to give you a starting point to begin thinking about body armor and how it may – or may not – relate you to.
Because of the variety available, the only way to truly know what’s best for you is to take some time and really evaluate your personal situation and the threat levels you encounter on a daily basis. Then, decide what level of protection makes you feel most safe and the amount of money you are able to spend.
Just like picking a firearm, picking body armor is a very personal and subjective experience. Only you know what’s best for you.
Body Armor Products
by David Maccar
Martinson Industries ELSA Vest
The Emergency Life Saving Armor (ELSA) vest from Martinson Industries is a fantastic product for a few reasons. First, it’s a great, compact, streamlined plate carrier that can accommodate any plate up to curved Level IV plates. Curved plates are more comfortable to wear and move with, but flat plates allow the ELSA to fold easier.
The ELSA has a secret though—it folds into a plain looking rectangular nylon case that looks an awful lot like a laptop bag with carry handles. The whole thing zips closed with a heavy zipper and can be stashed anywhere. Simply hold one of the carry handles, run the zipper open around the case, and the vest falls open in position to throw over your head.
You can have it deployed and covering your vitals in about four seconds or less depending on the situation. Then you can take a couple more seconds to buckle the side straps to make it a secure vest.
When closed, there’s enough room even with Level IV plates to keep a kydex holster with handgun and a double mag carrier affixed to the front MOLLE webbing. When the vest is deployed, they are at the ready.
And as a bonus, if you remove the plates, it becomes a handy range vest that can be strapped to or even fit inside a large range bag. MSRP: $220
AR500 Armor Concealment Plate Carrier
The AR500 Armor brand Concealment Plate Carrier is protection designed for concealment where low visibility of body armor is required.
The curves and angles are designed for minimal printing when worn under clothing. It is compatible with AR500 Armor’s Level IIIA Soft Armor, Level III hard Body Armor, Level IV Hard Body Armor, and our Trauma Pads in both 10″ x 12″, and 11″ x 14″.
The carrier is so streamlined that it can fit under a regular polo shirt and can offer protection against rifle rounds, depending on the plates you use.
It features an elastic cummerbund that allows the user to add side plate pouches for 6″ x 6″ or 6″ x 8″ side plates. Without the side pouches, the vest is more concealable.
This vest is designed for duty use, but is perfectly legal for civilians to own. MSRP: $149
S.T.R.I.K.E. Lightweight Plate Carrier Harness
The Blackhawk! S.T.R.I.K.E. Lightweight Plate Carrier is fully adjustable lightweight and just big enough to hold full sized armor plates that cover vitals front and back. It also features Blackhawk!’s S.T.R.I.K.E. webbing on the front and back for attaching holsters, pouches, and any other accessories you want.
It’s constructed of 500 denier CORDURA nylon in MultiCam and 500 denier ripstop nylon in other colors. It has a heavy-duty drag handle on the back, duel adjust side-release buckles, weights about 1.5 lbs., and accomodates Blackhawk! Ballistic Ceramic Plates up to 9.5″ x 12.5″, which are sold separately. MSRP: $153.45 – $173.95
Bulletproof Zone Wonder Hoodie
The Wonder Hoodie represents the latest in body armor technology for civilians who don’t want anyone to know they’re armored. This hooded sweatshirt offers Level IIIA protection that extends to the hood as well for head protection.
Detachable overlapped Kevlar panels are secured with Velcro in the torso portion to provide ballistic protection regardless if the hoodie is zipped or not. The panels can be removed for cleaning and maintenance and the hooding includes an adjustable tab waistband for a secure fit, two side-entry pockets , and a polyester and cotton fleece construction. MSRP: $594.99
Armored Backpacks from Infidel Armor
Another armor option that more incognito than a plate carrier and more comfortable than a concealed vest is an armored backpack.
The packs above from Infidel Armor include pockets for armor plates offering at least half the protection of an armored vest. If there’s enough time and opportunity, the pack can also be worn in the front.
The packs are also well made backpacks that function perfectly with or without the armor plates. MSRP: $74.95 without plate, $224 with Infidel Armor Level III curved plate.
Civilian One Armor Backpack Vest
This pack does one better, it actually holds two body armor panels and converts into a vest for front and rear protection. Designed by first responders, the Civilian One Bulletproof Backpack includes hidden armor panel pockets and a separation zipper that allows the user to transform it into a protective vest in moments.
The pack includes two 11″ x 14″ soft body armor panels rated to NIJ IIIA that are inserted into two internal pockets.
Additionally, detachable straps on the pack transform into tourniquets, drag straps, or door straps to help secure an area. The included drag handle on top can hold up to 300 pounds. The whole pack measures 19.5″ tall and 13.5″ x 7.5″ and weighs in at 5 lbs.
This pack has no external features that make it look tactical and comes in black or an unassuming gray. The Tactical One pack is the same as the Civilian One, but is a bit larger, and as the name suggest, looks more tactical, meaning it has MOLLE webbing on the front and sides, and a hook-and-loop panel. MSRP: $329.99